A collective gasp of surprise went up this week after the Public Religion Research Institute released new survey data that found that 75 percent of white Americans have “entirely white social networks.” Yet our popular culture, the 800-percent rise in hate groups, the woefully homogenous workplaces at companies such as Google, an ever-widening wealth gap, and neighborhoods still segregated along racial lines should make it obvious that the postracial promised land heralded when President Obama was first elected does not exist.
“The data does not surprise me at all,” says David J. Leonard, an associate professor of critical culture, gender, and race at WSU. “Implicit biases and stereotypes shape friendships, and if we look at media, if we look at popular culture, if we look at education, we see a persistence in the circulation of stereotypes that recycle prejudices. Those assumptions about difference shape friendships and invariably impact how white people interact with African Americans,” he says.
Socializing in homogenous networks and communities affects white people’s ability to be empathetic to the struggles their contemporaries of another color face. It also increases the likelihood that white Americans will view their minority counterparts through a stereotypical lens.
To begin bridging the gap that may lead to more cross-cultural friendships down the line, Leonard argues the route is simple: People have to talk to each other, and white folks have to own their privilege.
“Whites rarely have the opportunity to talk about race, to be held accountable for privilege, and to have important conversations,” he says. “Lacking the language to talk about race and to engage cross-racially will impact white people’s ability and willingness to develop these friendships.”